Friday, November 29, 2013

Taking the Road Less Traveled

Occasionally, my experiences for The 52/52 Project have ended in the unexpected. While I tend to imagine how certain ventures might play out, when I created my list I never envisioned catching the bride’s bouquet at the wedding reception I crashed, accompanying a SWAT team on a drug raid, or meeting a homeless woman whose personal story would touch me forever.

As John Lennon so insightfully wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

When I landed safely on the ground after my zip-lining excursion, I figured the biggest surprise was that I actually enjoyed the experience—and managed to survive to say so. Yet the most extraordinary moment of the day occurred not while I was soaring above the ground but at the end of our visit to Hocking Hills State Park.

With a couple hours of daylight remaining, my friend Murf was eager to hike one of the park’s trails. Her college freshman daughter, Leah, and I were far less enthused; the rain had started right after we finished zip-lining and it showed no signs of ending. But after sitting for a half-hour in a shelter house, my relentless friend finally convinced us. We set off on a slightly muddy trail, with rain hoods, a single umbrella, and only one of us with a good attitude.

About a half-mile down the trail, we encountered a group of people ascending a set of stairs cut into a cliff.

“It’s beautiful down there,” one of them told us. “You really should check it out.”

I glanced down at the narrow, winding steps, slippery with wet autumn leaves. Leah and I exchanged frowns.  The entire park had been beautiful. We’d already hiked, oohed and ahhed at the scenery, and gotten to be one with nature. Whatever lay at the bottom of those steps, even if it was hidden treasure, surely wasn’t worth the effort. Still, Murf—the friend who once convinced me to let her drive my mother’s car down the sidewalk in her college town—soon talked us into slogging down the stairs.

We maneuvered our way down, stepping carefully and grasping the rocky walls for stability. As we neared the bottom, I paused. Did I hear music?

The stairs opened up into a huge cavern. I gazed around to find a group of Amish people—nearly three dozen men, women, and children in traditional Amish clothing. Most were seated on the half-circle of rock floor, and others stood around them. Every one of them was singing. Their voices echoed throughout the cavern.

My friends and I glanced at each other with wide eyes and then we stood, listening, mesmerized. As they finished the last, perfectly harmonized chorus of “Amazing Grace,” I felt compelled to clap, but applause somehow seemed an inadequate response, inappropriate or even sacrilegious. And then, just as we started to walk away, one of the seated men slowly stood and began playing the bagpipes.

As surreal experiences go, as any of the memorable moments in my past six months came to be, this may have topped the list.

After talking with them afterward, we learned that not only was it our first visit to that cavern, it was each of their first times, too. The bagpiper wasn’t even among the Amish group. None of this experience was anticipated or planned, by any one of us.

It was pure serendipity that we all found ourselves there at that spot, on that day, at that exact moment.

As we left the park, I reflected upon how taking a small chance in life, following a whim, can change a life. If I  hadn’t decided to take that trip down south, if I hadn’t dismissed all my misgivings, if I hadn’t explored down those treacherous stairs into that cave, I would have missed out on that moment: which proved to be one of the most amazing and beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.

Was it fate or was it chance that led us down those slippery, rocky stairs that day?

All I know is the familiar road we choose to travel, over and over again, may be the safest and most comfortable. But, sometimes, we need to look beyond, above, and even below that well-worn path.

Because that’s often where the most beautiful soundtrack to our life exists.

What's the last thing that surprised you? What holds you back from taking that less-traveled road? Is it fate or is it chance that plays the biggest part in our lives?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Top Ten Things I Am Thankful for This Year

After my six months of new experiences, I am very thankful that:

  • My belly-dancing lessons didn’t end in a public recital.
  • I didn’t happen to run into either of my two sons—or my mother—when I visited an adult bookstore.
  • I didn’t get called back after my “Survivor” audition because, let’s be honest: How long could I possibly have survived?
  • No video exists of my Brazilian wax.
  • I was the person taking a homeless woman to lunch, and not the other way around. So, so thankful for all the blessings in my life.
  • My police patrol ride-a-long and SWAT team raid ended with a chocolate doughnut—and not a bullet—in my stomach.
  • The sweet Sisters at the convent never held a pre-visit conference call with the nuns who taught me at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns Grade School.
  • I didn’t crash to my death, while puking on a crowd of tourists below, when I zip-lined.
  • My dreaded colonoscopy was much a doo-doo about nothing.
  • Baring it all at the nude beach was likely the most humiliating moment of my life. It should all be smooth coasting from here, yes?

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

What are you thankful for in your life? What are you thankful that I've done--and you didn't?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dining in the Dark

I love nothing more than a nice meal out. So why was I bit uneasy about the idea of going out to dinner one evening while vacationing in south Florida? Probably because the restaurant we’d chosen served you a mystery meal and suggested it might be safest if you didn’t use any sharp implements—since you’d be dining in the total dark.

I’d found this particular restaurant online, after a reader suggested “dark dining” for The 52/52 Project.  Few places in the United States offered the option, but I figured my mother and I could conveniently stop at Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale on our way back to our hotel in Delray Beach, right after our afternoon at the nude beach near Miami. I’d spent the afternoon naked and nauseated. I only hoped I hadn’t lost my appetite.

Our server seated us in a room by ourselves. I wondered if she’d overheard our replay of our beach excursion, as we sat at the restaurant bar before dinner. Perhaps she feared I’d whip off my clothes in the middle of my meal. She explained, however, that the rest of the restaurant was normal dining, and while they used to group dark diners together in one room, the sounds of strangers talking around them tended to confuse people. I had to agree with this new practice, especially since my mom and I were the easily confused sort.

She asked if we had any food allergies or major food aversions. We both were quick to mention Lima beans (eww) and I added liver and onions to my list. Although I used to enjoy veal, I noted that I no longer eat it, for humanitarian reasons. (Vegetarians: Please don’t burst my bubble my telling me how inhumanely other farm creatures are raised, too. After my week experience of going vegan, I’m still taking a vegetarian lifestyle one baby cow step at a time.)

Our waitress reassured us they were serving none of those items tonight, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I could handle any other variety of meat or vegetables. After all, I’d eaten insects as one of my early 52/52 ventures. As long as I wasn’t served filet of cat, I wouldn’t complain.

The waitress turned off the lights and left the room to get our first course.

I leaned across to my mother. “This is weird, sitting here in the dark,” I said.


“I said, ‘It’s weird to sit here in the dark.’”

“You’re going to need to speak slower and louder. I’m not wearing my hearing aids.”

“You’re not wearing your hearing aids? Why?”

“I didn’t want to get sand in them at the nude beach.”

I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Terrific. Apparently, I’d be dining that evening with Helen Keller.

“You should probably put them in,” I said. It wasn’t a suggestion. She poked around, finally located her purse on the floor, and dug through it. Miraculously, she managed to find the tiny case and opened it.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” she said. “Now I just need to find the batteries to put in them.”

I dropped my chin but didn’t say a word. This mattered little, since she wouldn’t have heard me anyway.

To find and then insert the batteries, my mother determined she needed light. Fortunately, she told me, she and all her Golden Girl friends always carry a flashlight. Just as she fished it out of her purse and switched it on, our server appeared with our first course.

“Uh-uh,” she scolded us. “No cheating.”

“You need to cut us a break here. Trust me,” I said.

As my mother configured her hearing aids, our waitress told us she was placing our plates directly in front of us. She left the room, and I reached my hands out in the dark to find my food.

It’s strange how much you rely on the sense of sight while dining. Without being able to eye our food, figuring out what we were eating was a challenge. Throughout our four courses, we were only somewhat on-target. Some of the individual ingredients were easy to guess. I noted curry, onions, and whole almonds with no difficulty.

By the texture and shape of our first course, I thought at first it was well-cooked baby carrots, although it didn’t seem sweet enough. I finally concluded it was some sort of dumpling. Our waitress later confirmed it was gnocchi.

The second course consisted of round slices of something I thought at first might be eggplant. Yet the rind on them had a meaty taste. My mom and I were fully confounded. We learned it was a very rare fish, called Wahoo. I would not have guessed this, even in the brightest sunlight.

The third course: Easy. By the smell, taste, and texture, we both agreed it was beef.  Our server corrected us. No, it was actually venison.  And so, I added eating deer to my list of the year’s new experiences.

The fourth course was dessert, an ice cream and flourless chocolate cake, which my mother and I both closely called (we’d guessed brownies) and happily devoured.
Yet even more difficult than guessing what we were eating was actually eating it. We started off the meal by attempting to spear our food with a fork. Although neither of us stabbed ourselves, we often brought our forks up to our mouths only to discover the food had dropped off. Half the time, we also had inadvertently turned the fork sideways. Dieters: Dark dining is likely an excellent weight-loss plan.

We ended up eating most of the meal with our hands. Our waitress said this was typical. It proved far messier but was the only way to ensure we’d found all the food on our plates and relocated it to our mouths.

The waitress had an easier time of it—she wore night-vision goggles as she served us. She said the most difficult thing was filling our water glasses.  Still, she never spilled a drop, as least as far as we knew. My mother, not known for her daintiness or grace, feared she wasn’t faring as well in the sloppiness factor. “When we get home," she said, "I’ll probably have to throw away this white jacket."

While researching dark dining, I had learned that without vision, an individual’s other senses are amplified. I did indeed note that I concentrated much more on the individual aromas and flavors of each dish. And, certainly, the sense of touch was more important. The old adage “Don’t play with your food” proved impractical here. 

As far as the food itself, my mother and I agreed it was good but not fabulous.  A true gourmet might have appreciated it more than we did. Perhaps we were just low-brow diners.

On the drive back to our hotel, my mom said dining in the dark had been an interesting experience. Still, out of the day’s two experiences, she thought she enjoyed the nude beach more. Huh.

If nothing else, The 52/52 Project has taught me you’re never too old to try something new. Or to learn something new about your mother.

Nude beach or dark dining? What's the one food that really turns your stomach? Want to go to dinner with my mother and me?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Baring It at the Beach

When visiting a nude beach, I figured a sunbather should be certain to bring along three things: plenty of sunscreen, an extra-large towel, and her seventy-five-year-old mother.

Sure, the last item seemed a wildcard. But, when both of my formerly fun sisters vetoed this side trip during our vacation in south Florida, my mother hesitated only briefly. “Just be sure to mention both of us kept our clothes on,” she said.

“Um, yeah,” I replied. “Maybe I didn’t clarify that point to you. I’ll be going au naturel, too.”

“Oh.” She pondered this news for a moment. “Well, just don’t sit near me. I saw you naked as a baby, and I don’t really care to now.” My mother didn’t want to see her own daughter naked, but she seemed okey-doke with viewing dozens of strangers who were letting it all hang out? I didn’t question her reasoning. As I considered the idea, I decided I wouldn’t wish to sit next to her if she were naked either. Apparently, awkward nudity is something best reserved for total strangers.

We made the one-hour trek down to Haulover Beach, near Miami, on a windy, overcast afternoon. As we approached the warning sign on the beach that said, “Attention: Beyond this point you may encounter nude bathers,” I reminded my mother about the rules of Nude Beach Social Etiquette that I’d researched on the internet. The first was to keep your eyes on the other sunbathers’ faces and not on their other body parts.

“Do not ogle or stare,” the website instructed. “Nude sunbathers expect eye contact if they choose to be spoken to.” Sound advice, although I was pretty sure neither of us would be choosing to speak to any of them.

A few feet within the “special” area of the beach, we encountered a man—sans even a Speedo—walking in our direction. I had no trouble not staring at him, since I was momentarily preoccupied with helping my mother negotiate, with her cane, across the sand.

We heard a deep voice, and we both looked up. “This sand is hard to walk on, isn’t it?” he said.

My mom paused, leaning on her cane. “Yes, it is,” she replied. She smiled at him. He smiled back. I grabbed her arm, and we continued down the beach.

She leaned in and whispered to me. “Did you see how good I did? I made really good eye contact.”

I snorted, calling bullshit. Neither of us maintained full contact with the man’s two blue eyes. No matter how much we tried, how could we avoid his third eye, when it was right out there, only a couple feet away?

Next, we passed by a bronzed Adonis. Late forties. Dark, wavy hair. Twinkling eyes. Holy Mother of God! Was he standing at half-mast? I yanked my mother’s arm, before anyone had a chance to speak.

We wandered a bit and found a place for my mother to plop down, next to a stack of rental lounge chairs. I headed further down the beach. As I plodded across the sand, I glanced around. The winds were high and the sky was ominous, so the beach wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d been told it usually is, with as many as seven thousand visitors in a single day. Although it was advertised as a “family-oriented nude beach,” I didn’t spot a single child. In fact, I saw very few women.

Ninety-five percent of the sunbathers were men. Some lay spread-eagle on the sand, their hands behind their heads. Several roamed the beach, in what I could only assume they believed to be their untethered glory.

It was a blustery day. All around me, winky-dinks waved in the wind.

I lowered my head, focusing on searching the beach for the perfect spot to drop down—and to drop my drawers. I didn’t want to be within close vicinity to any other sunbathers. I also didn’t want to face the highest traffic line of passersby. About three miles away, I figured, would be just about right.

I finally gave in to the futility of any privacy. Privacy at a public, nude beach was probably an oxymoron. And considering how stupid I was feeling for ever believing I could go through with this, “moron” was the operative word.

Spreading out a towel, I sat down, still wearing my swimsuit and cover-up. I opened a book and pretended to read, while contemplating my next move and still questioning my sanity. I realized I could only get this over with by ripping off the Band-Aid quickly, and that meant ripping off my swimsuit. And so I did.

I promptly covered myself with a second towel. It was windy! It was cold (relatively speaking)! I needed that towel! But the wind immediately whipped the towel up, over my body, until it landed neatly folded against my face, leaving the rest of my body fully exposed. I sprang up to spread it back over me, but then the towel beneath me went awry in the wind. I tried several times to unfurl it, before I finally heard a voice say, “Here, let me help you with that.”

Swiveling my head, I saw a young man kneeling behind me. “I saw you struggling,” he said. “Here, let’s just put one of your sandals on each edge of the towel to anchor it down.”

I forced a smile back, praying he’d make good eye contact, too. “Oh, uh-huh. Good idea. Thank you.”

He returned to his spot several feet behind me. I lay back down, holding the towel on top of me with both arms extended over it, and stared at the sky. As time passed, more slowly than it ever had in the history of the universe, I finally pulled the towel off.  I squeezed my eyes shut. I adopted a two-year-old’s thinking: If I can’t see anyone, then no one can see me.

I heard voices as people passed by, and I flinched any time I heard a pause in their conversation. Wait: What were they doing? What were they looking at? A couple helicopters passed over me. I prayed they weren’t taking aerial photos.

Fifteen minutes later, my mother texted me from her secluded spot a hundred yards away. “I think it’s starting to rain. Want to go?” No, it wasn’t raining—probably just sea spray from the wind. But yes, I wanted to go. “Fifteen more minutes,” I wrote back. I figured forty-five minutes on the beach and I could check this experience off my list.

As I yanked my swimsuit back on and collected my things, I also gathered my courage and looked behind me. The young man who’d helped me with my towel was fully clothed and reading a textbook, with a small pile of other books and spiral notebooks lying next to him.

He glanced up and smiled. I nodded. I supposed any beach was a nice alternative to the campus library when you’re a college student. I pictured him writing a term paper on awkward, overweight, middle-aged women who visit nude beaches, for his abnormal psychology class.  

My mother shot me a look of relief when I returned. She rolled her eyes and gestured to her right, just around the stack of lounge chairs. It seemed Adonis had shown up there just after I left. He’d asked her, “Do you mind if I sit right back here behind you, to be away from the wind?”

She’d replied, “No, you’re fine.” She told me she had smiled to herself, thinking yes, you are fine, indeed! But over the next half-hour, as he frequently stood and walked around her, preening, she squirmed a bit in discomfort. When I arrived, he immediately stood up, walked around to us, and watched us get ready to leave.

I think I would have found Adonis to be more attractive if he’d left a little bit to our imagination.

As we walked away, my mother reminded me she’d been to a nude beach years ago, in St. Martin, where the Europeans are much more nonchalant and everyone is more comfortable with nudity. The Americans here? Not so much.

Some go to nude beaches here regularly because they like to flaunt their stuff. Others, like me, are there out of curiosity. Maybe a few just prefer full body tans. I’ll take the tan lines.

Our little side trip to Haulover Beach proved to be quite the sideshow. With a great amount of trepidation, I took part in it, from top to bottom. I’ll give myself some credit for that.

And next time I whine about trying on bathing suits, I’ll remind myself anything is better than nothing.

Ever bared it all in public?  Is less, more? Will I be getting a full chapter in someone's textbook on abnormal psychology?